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June 10, 2004

Installment #7: Of Creepers, Details, and "Dude, It's Just Horror! 

Okay, in case you haven't already heard (which means my scream of shock didn't reach all the way across the East Coast), this past Saturday night, June 5th, the Horror Writers' Association honored my short story "Duty" with the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction.

That's right: I won a Stoker. I'm still reeling from it, still incredibly happy, and still half-expecting someone to come tap, tap, tapping at my chamber door, saying, ahem, there was a terrible misunderstanding and could they please have it back because Stephen King is waiting for it.

I will confirm that it's one hell of a humbling experience to receive one of these, and I am more grateful than I can put into words; but like I said in my acceptance speech: for those who claim the Stokers don't mean anything, try standing up on that stage with one of them in your hand and saying that.

After having visited NYC, I can say to all of you New Yorkers that you've got every reason to be damned proud of your town; everyone I met -- from the shuttle driver to the people who manned the hotel desk to the bleary-eyed guy who sold me a cup of coffee at 5 a.m. -- was friendly and (get this) courteous; that's right, you read it correctly, courteous. Even though it was obvious to all of them (sometimes painfully so) that I was a visitor from Ohio, I was never spoken down to, never made to feel like a hick, never dismissed out of hand, and not once was I ever made to feel like they were doing me a favor by putting up with my presence in their city. The song is right: it's a helluva town, and I can't wait to visit again. (And not to overlook the New Jersey folks I met: you're equally cool, as well.)

And for the record: the coffee I had in NYC was the most delicious coffee I've had in my life; and I want to move to Tower Records -- not near Tower Records, to Tower Records, as in: I wish to live in the building, preferably somewhere on or near the escalator that links the CD section to the DVDs one floor below. Yes, I have problems, but you already knew that.

One more thing, and then we'll get to the topic this time around.

After the "A**holes" section of the last column was posted, I received a lot of e-mails expressing concern for my financial situation. One reader even went so far to actually send some cash to me through the mail (thanks, Rick). I felt really bad about this because a lot of you good folks came away from that installment with the impression that I was on the edge of homelessness and poverty, which is decidedly not the case; but, as you know, I'm not getting rich from doing this, either (hence the three part-time jobs).

In almost every single letter, a suggestion was made, and while I at first gave it a thumbs-down, enough people have continued to suggest it that I thought, what the hell, so here it is:

If you really enjoy the content you find on this site, if you like the rants and appreciate the free bi-monthly stories, video, etc., and if you'd like to tip the writer as you would your favorite bartender, here's the place to do it:

Or, if you'd rather donate to a far worthier cause, make a donation to Protect.org or Strange Horizons or the organization of your choice. Whichever you choose, I thank you.

Onward...

A few weeks ago, a writer friend of mine -- we'll call him Norbert -- was busy making final revisions on a story he was planning to submit to an anthology that is currently reading. Norbert asked me if I wold look at his story and offer suggestions and opinions. I read the story over, and while a full 75% of it was rock-solid, the final sequence seemed to me to fall victim to over-ripe melodrama.

Now, instead of just saying outright that the finale was overbaked (and a bit nonsensical), I instead pointed out to the N-man what I saw as the place where the story wandered off the highway; it had to do specifically with the nature of a central character's physical and spiritual metamorposis mid-way through on which the rest of the story's events were hinged; the precise nature of this metamorposis, and what the character intended to accomplish with it, were unclear and -- I felt -- because of their nebulousness, robbed the story of any impact. Instead, Norbert had chosen to finish things off with a (figurative) loud and histrionic display of horrific fireworks.

I began asking him specific questions about the precise nature of this character's physical and spiritual metamorphosis: what exact physical change was taking place, how it affected the character's ultimate goal, and what that ultimate goal was supposed to be.

"What exactly is the nature of this change?" I asked.

"It's a supernatural transformation," was Norbert's reply.

"But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?"

"I don't know...it's just a supernatural transformation," he again said.

"That's not good enough," I replied. "In order for you to get from the mid-point of the story to a more logical, chilling, and less cartoonish ending, you have to know exactly the nature of this transformation, how it affects the character's psychological and spiritual make-up, and what the character's ultimate goal is once this transformation has been completed."

Now, I thought this was a fairly clear, concise, and thoughful piece of criticism. Norbert, after throwing up his hands and sighing loudly in frustration, looked me right in the eyes and said: "Dude, it's just horror! It's not like science fiction where these kinds of specific details matter!"

No, I did not kill him, but I did make it clear that he had not only just insulted and trivialized the horror genre, but also (intentionally or not) my life's work.

I don't know anyone who enjoys hearing their life's work reduced to a triviality, do you?

Now, in Norbert's defense, he was dealing with a story that had been giving him problems for a while; so much so that it had been put away and only recently approached again.

I would also add that Norbert has not written or read as much horror as he has science fiction and fantasy.

I would also add that he had been having a really, really bad couple of weeks personally, and as a result felt like I was attacking him.

That said (and, yes, he apologized later when he realized the remark -- however off-hand -- had hurt and offended me quite deeply), the N-man's comment encapsulated for me, with disturbingly and depressingly crystal clarity, why it is that a lot of horror stories and novels being published are of an at-best journeyman quality.

It's because too many writers think, Dude, it's just horror! Too many writers think that it's okay to just say "...it's a supernatural transformation", and leave it at that, because once you've let the demon out, you don't really need to think about the How's and Why's and How-Come's; once the Boogeyman is boogying, the details don't matter, just so long as it's exciting or suspenseful or horrific.

Wrong.

It is exactly when the Glop is slurping victims left and right that you most need to think about the details. Every story -- no matter how believable or outrageous its premise -- must follow its own internal logic; it must establish the rules for its own microcosmic universe and then adhere to those rules. Fairly basic stuff, unless you think it isn't necessary to bother establishing those rules in the first place.

Let me give you an example: the first Jeepers Creepers movie. Throughout the story, all we know about the Creeper is: he's a demon (and even that much is left for us to infer, rather than being directly established). Nowhere in the first film does the writer bother establishing the Creeper's precise nature; we don't know where it came from, what it wants, why it wants it, or what, exactly, the Creeper plans to accomplish through its actions. As a result of the Creeper's nature and powers never being established, the story leaves it wide open for it to behave however it needs to in order to keep the story suspsenseful.

That's not necessarily a good thing; yes, because neither the audeince nor the characters in the film know the Creeper's precise nature, it is impossible to predict what it will do next, and by default that should have generated more suspense...but it doesn't quite work. It's the very unpredictability of the Creeper's actions that works against the second half of the film, preventing it from reaching the dizzying levels of suspense that mark the first forty minutes; if we, the audience, had been given some vague idea of the Creeper's nature, had we been given just a few rules, had just a few details been established, then we wouldn't have felt so much that the writer was simply pulling things out of his ying-yang in order to make the next scene SPOOOOOOOKY.

It's sloppy storytelling, pure and simple. (And I would remind you that the reason Jeepers Creepers 2 was such a success was because the writer took the time to painstakingly establish the background elements lacking in the first film; because we did know the Creeper's nature, what it wanted, why, and -- an old trick that always works -- that it was functioning under a time limit, the second film generated and maintained a high level of suspense that was both intense and followed the internal logic set down by the ground rules. No, it ain't Lawrence of Arabia, but on terms of storytelling, it's light-years ahead of the first movie.)

If you think I'm making a tempest in a teapot here, consider this: Stephen King went back and revised the first four Dark Tower books so that they better followed the internal logic and ground rules that emerged as he wrote the last three novels in the series; he did this because the details are important; he did this because, as a writer, he was not content to simply let gaffes in continuity remain uncorrected; he did this because he takes his work very seriously, and part of taking it seriously means that you think about the details, you follow your own ground rules, and you (as the late Theodore Sturgeon so eloquently phrased it) ask the next question: what is the true nature of the beast?; why does this happen?; what does he or she want?; what brought them here?, etc.

No, you don't have to offer these answers outright during the course of the story, but you, as the writer, have to know these answers yourself, for if you start your novel, novella, or short story with all the answers already in mind, you'd be surprised at how quickly and clearly your story will follow a logical course of events wherein these answers are shown to the reader through the actions of the characters or the progression of events.

I myself am doing the same thing with the three Cedar Hill Stories collections; every reprint story that appears in these has been tweaked a little here and there so that each better fits into the universe of Cedar Hill, better adheres to the ground rules, and better holds its logical place in the chronology of events leading up the "end" of Cedar Hill in the third volume. (An aside here: the late John D. MacDonald is rumored to have always written the endings of his novels first, obstensibly so he'd always know what he was heading toward, and so could ensure that everything else pointed in that direction; it's also been rumored he did that because he was afraid if he died before the book was finished, some jackass would finish it and give it the wrong conclusion. Starting with Graveyard People and moving through the next two volumes, everything in all three books is pointing toward the novella "This Dark March", which will close the final collection.)

The details are important, folks; they are vital; they are not to be dismissed off-handedly; because it ain't just horror: it's a question of careful storytelling, because it's only through genuine craftsmanship that we can offer readers a much richer and rewarding reading experience than simply tossing the details out the window and just being SPOOOOOOOKY.

If you disagree, then go back and read the "Fuzzy Bunnies" installment and ask yourself: wouldn't I feel cheated if the majority of what I encountered in horror consistently made these mis-steps, ones that could have been avoided had the writer taken the time and effort to ask the next question?


This column's writing tip has to do with the second of the horror writer's three deadliest enemies: profanity. (Italics being the third, which we'll cover next time.)

First of all, unless you're writing Christian YA (and even that's up for debate), it would be unrealistic to write a novel or short story wherein one of the characters didn't swear at some point; our lives have becaome much more fast-paced and frustrating, and a result of that frustration is that people swear more now than they did, say, back in the days of Booth Tarkington's Magnificent Ambersons.

However (you knew that was coming, didn't you?), there is a difference between the way people swear in real life and how they should swear in fiction. I know a guy who would have a full one-third -- if not half -- his vocabulary hacked off at the knees if he were unable to say f**k. I've passed strangers' conversations wherein I picked up at least nine different profanities before they were out of earshot.

I remember one instance, while reading Skipp & Spector's The Light At The End, where in a single line of dialogue, one character used eleven profanities -- including all of the Biggies -- in one sentence; it was rather impressive...but it was also way too much. Yeah, I have no doubt that there are people out there in the real world who do speak like that, but (and here comes the tip), if you over-use profanity in your dialogue, you rob it of its most important function: profanity is simply violence without action; it should be employed in fiction to either foreshadow or replace violence. If you follow this suggested guideline, you'll not only use less of it your writing, but what you do use will be so well-placed that it will have ten times the impact of an endless string of curses.

Example: in my novel In Silent Graves, there is a sequence where the main character (who's just lost his wife and newborn child) enconters two guys on a city bus who are swearing and cursing and spewing the most unbelievable filth (Andrew Dice Clay wouldn't say some of the things these two guys do); their language is upsetting a young woman who's sitting nearby the main character, and as the intensity of the profanity and filth builds, so does the main character's frustration and anger. It's the only time in the book that profanity of this level is used, and that was a deliberate choice on my part: I wanted it to be as shocking to the reader as it is to the main character, and I wanted it to build along with his anger. Everyone who's read the novel has mentioned this sequence as being very effective, and inwardly I cheer; I wanted it to be effective, I wanted their language to be shocking, because the increased intensity of the filth that comes out of their mouths foreshadows the violence that ends this sequence.

So: remember that profanity is simply violence without action, and that it should be employed only to foreshadow or replace violence; you'll find that you use less of it, and that what you do use will be all the more effective.


That'll do it for this time round. I want to thank all of you for continuing to support myself, my work, and this web site (for the first time ever, I exceeded my bandwidth allowance last month, so the traffic here's getting pretty heavy, and I dig it, thanks). Look for more free stories, video, and downloadable audio in the weeks to come, and if you've any suggestion for topics you'd like to see covered in future columns, drop me an e-mail.

Stay tuned....

 

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